By baseball standards Chicago White Sox lefthander Mark Buehrle is not superstitious, but on the days he pitches at home, he always stops at the Shell station, the one where Kingery Highway meets Interstate 55 southwest of Chicago, and buys a Rockstar energy drink. Last Thursday, Buehrle was pitching at U.S. Cellular Field against Tampa Bay, but on the way to the park that morning from his home in Lemont, Ill., he forgot about his ginseng fix and drove right past the station. Only when he was 10 minutes from the stadium did he look down at the cup holder in his BMW and notice it was empty. "Oh s---," he muttered. He texted his wife, Jamie, "Forgot my drink. I'll definitely lose today."
The beauty of a perfect game is that no one ever sees it coming. When White Sox centerfielder Dewayne Wise showed up at the ballpark and did not find his name in the starting lineup, he didn't even bother to stretch. When backup catcher Ramon Castro showed up and did find his name in the starting lineup, he hurriedly went over signs with Buehrle—fastball, cutter, change. "You know," Buehrle said, "I throw a curveball, too." Castro, a May acquisition from the Mets who was catching Buehrle for the first time, had no idea.
With the White Sox playing a day game after a night game and facing a doubleheader the next afternoon in Detroit, they trotted out a lineup that looked more like a split squad at spring training. In addition to Castro, Gordon Beckham, who was in the minor leagues two months ago, was starting at third and regular third baseman Josh Fields was making only the seventh start of his career at first. Buehrle, meanwhile, was facing a batting order with four All-Stars in a ballpark that is surrendering more home runs per game this season than Colorado's Coors Field. A control pitcher, Buehrle's command was so poor in his pregame bullpen session that he told Castro, "Don't worry. It will get better."
It would become a perfect day, made more so by all its imperfect elements. Buehrle is a scruffy, doughy, sleepy-eyed, 38th-round draft pick who was cut twice in high school, was the No. 4 starter on his junior college team and rarely touches 90 mph. He's also one of the most underappreciated pitchers of his generation, a contemporary Catfish Hunter who won 122 games before his 30th birthday, yet goes largely unrecognized away from Chicago's South Side. He no-hit the Rangers two years ago and would have had a perfect game if not for a fifth-inning walk to Sammy Sosa, whom he promptly picked off. The difference between a no-hitter and a perfect game, as Buehrle discovered, is tissue-thin but significant. Including the postseason, the majors have had 263 no-hitters but only 18 perfect games. "Perfection is hard to reach," his pitching coach Don Cooper says. "Think of all the ways you can get on base." A walk, error, hit batsman, wild pitch on a strikeout, even catcher's interference can turn something that comes along about as often as a naked-eye comet into something fairly common.
In the clubhouse last Thursday, A.J. Pierzynski, normally the starting catcher, asked Buehrle, "Why don't you throw a no-hitter?" Buehrle answered, "For what? I've already done that." Pierzynski replied, "Then why don't you throw a perfect game?"
In October we are clustered around televisions from the first pitch of the first inning, awaiting history. But on a lazy Thursday afternoon in July we are at work, at camp, at the beach, and if there is history to be made, it will sneak up on you. John Buehrle, Mark's father, was driving from his home in St. Charles, Mo., to Mark's 1,500-acre ranch 90 minutes away in Louisiana, Mo. In the off-season Mark hunts deer on the ranch and rides four-wheelers with his wife, Jamie. He proposed to her there, on a deer stand, both of them in camouflage. ("Dad," John recalls his son telling him, "I love a girl in camo.") John was planning to watch the game on Mark's TV, then mow the grass and set up some food plots with corn and soybeans for the deer. But when he flipped on the television, the DirecTV satellite dish couldn't find a signal. He called his wife, Pat, for the first update of the day.
Buehrle had thrown 10 pitches in the first inning, eight for strikes, and no ball left the infield. His longtime agent, Jeff Berry, who was watching at the Creative Artists Agency office in Manhattan, said to himself, This could be an interesting day.
Buehrle has a suite at U.S. Cellular Field that he shares with reliever Scott Linebrink so their kids can crawl around together during games. The Buehrles have two children, five-month-old Brooklyn and two-year-old Braden, but day games conflict with Braden's nap schedule, so Jamie brought only Brooklyn. Since Jamie did not need a romper room for her newborn, she moved down to the scouts' section behind home plate, next to Lisa Dergan Podsednik, wife of centerfielder Scott Podsednik. Buehrle sent Jamie two texts early in the game to see where she had gone. He finally noticed Brooklyn in the same red dress she wore to the All-Star Game parade, with MY DADDY'S AN ALL STAR printed on the front. Buehrle is only 30, but he is already thinking of retiring after his four-year, $56 million contract expires in 2011 so he won't miss any more highlights of Brooklyn and Braden growing up.
In the first three innings a couple of trends started to develop. Buehrle, who usually throws about 40 cutters a game, practically abandoned his best pitch. He was relying almost exclusively on changeups and curveballs, the pitch Castro did not know he could throw. He was also managing the game as if he were Steve Nash leading a fast break. Buehrle is a famously quick worker, known to sometimes start his windup before a catcher flashes the sign. "There are times I've missed pitches," Fields says. "I'll be scraping the dirt and all of a sudden you hear the glove pop." The Rays allowed Buehrle to set the pace, and Castro allowed him to maintain it—catch the ball, fire it back, put down the sign, rinse and repeat. Buehrle never shook him off, and the Rays rushed through their at bats like a team in a hurry to get out of town. "Buehrle dominates you with tempo," Cooper says. "His rhythm and the rhythm of the game met. It was a perfect storm."
The drama of no-hitters and perfect games builds gradually, a slow boil starting in the sixth inning. Fields, who had snapped a 1-for-20 slump with a grand slam in the second, jogged out to his position for the top of the sixth, already thinking the unthinkable. A former quarterback at Oklahoma State, Fields plotted how he would tackle Buehrle in a celebratory dog pile while protecting Buehrle's left arm.